ST. GEORGE — Over 20 middle and high school robotics teams gathered at Desert Hills Middle School to compete in the first-ever Desert Hills VEX Robotics Competition.
VEX Robotics is the largest and fastest-growing educational robotics competition with thousands of tournaments in every state and more than 40 other countries every year. The organization made the jump into Utah beginning in the northern part of the state before Joe Furse, technology education teacher at Desert Hills Middle School, brought it to Southern Utah.
Furse moved from Northern Utah two years ago when he started teaching at Desert Hills and directed the event with the help of another teacher from Vista School in Ivins. With teams traveling from Central Utah and Nevada, and 18 of the 22 teams based in Washington County, Furse said he was surprised, but thankful for the large turn out.
“It just hasn’t gained any traction really here, in Southern Utah,” Furse told St. George News. “It’s gone really well so far. Actually, it’s gone better than I anticipated.”
Before they can compete, students spend hundreds of hours preparing for the event. Each team starts out with bits of metal, some motors and a microcontroller with no template. Students then must design, build and program their robots to take on a specific task, which changes from year to year.
Furse said it is not uncommon for a state-qualifying team to put in over 400 hours of work during the course of the season, which include design, modifications, programming and practicing.
“It is a lot of time on the part of the students,” he said. “A lot of learning takes place, solving problems and all those types of things.”
There are three phases to the tournament: the competition, skills and the overall team approach.
The competition involves students competing head-to-head to score points based on a game that has been designed for that year. The skills division of the tournament involves a team entering the field without a competitor, attempting to score as many points as they can on their own.
Both the competition and the skills divisions have either an autonomous — where the robots have been programmed to complete actions without an operator — or driver-controlled options.
The third leg of the competition — the overall team approach — is judged behind closed doors and involves experts assessing the team in their robot’s design, documentation, team qualities and professionalism.
Throughout the competition, students are learning design and integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, such as computational thinking and coding. That is done alongside soft skills that include teamwork and communication.
“This (event) gives a format where they can learn those things in an environment that is less structured, that is more aligned with their interests and allows them to really excel in ways that maybe they aren’t able to do in the classroom as much,” Furse said.
Winners will qualify to compete in the Utah State Championships on Feb. 26 in Syracuse, Utah. Local teams could have another chance to qualify for the state competition in January at another VEX Robotics tournament hosted at Vista School.
In the past, Utah students have earned high ranks and even placed first in national and world-wide robotics competitions.
“Our region here, in Southern Utah, is a very strong region, so it will be a really unique opportunity for some of our teams in Southern Utah, if they can qualify here to go up to state,” he said. “There are some really high-quality teams here, in Utah, and in Southern Utah we’re trying to get on that bandwagon.”
Moving forward, Furse said he would love to see more teams compete in the Southern Utah competitions from Northern Utah and surrounding states, and he is looking forward to seeing the event grow.
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